Programs aim to boost city employee morale

Attraction, retention of talent is an ongoing challenge

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published February 22, 2013

MADISON HEIGHTS — For cities across Michigan trying to stay solvent during tough economic times, keeping employees in good spirits can be more challenging since traditional incentives, like wage increases, are no longer viable.

But through initiatives like the Casual Day and Employee Wellness Program, Madison Heights is working to keep morale high to attract and retain employees.

In the case of the Casual Day program, it’s even an opportunity to give back to charitable organizations, both at the local level and nationally.

As part of the program, non-uniform staff can pitch in $2 for the privilege to dress in comfy but respectable clothes on Fridays.

Staff also had the opportunity on Wednesdays during the summer, as well as on numerous special occasions. In 2013, Casual Day is every Wednesday.

The money added up to $1,400 in 2012, which was divided among charities such as the Alzheimer’s Association, American Heart Association, Gateway Counseling Center, Gilda’s Club, Habitat for Humanity, Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation.

Other popular causes include the city’s Memorial Day Parade and Holiday Lights.

“Not all of our employees live in the city, but all of them who are a part of this program support our local charities,” said Madison Heights City Manager Jon Austin.

The Casual Day program dates back to 1999, when Austin created a committee that would designate the charities they would give to each year. More than $36,000 has been collected and distributed in this fashion.

“The employees love Casual Day and look forward to it every week,” Austin said. “There is a good feeling toward all of the charities supported by this effort.”    

A portion of the Casual Day proceeds also fund 100 percent of a fund to assist city employees struck by family and medical tragedies. Over the years, it’s been used about a dozen times.

Another way the city keeps employees feeling good is through the Employee Wellness Program. Kathy Vesprini chairs the city’s Wellness Committee, which oversees the completely voluntary program that is off the clock, done during lunch hours or before or after work.

Started in 2002, the Employee Wellness Program encourages employees to have medical screenings at the start of the year, facilitated by the city’s private health care provider, which also counsels them if any issues crop up during the screening.

There are then “lunch-and-learn” sessions spotlighting different wellness needs, examples of which include nutrition, fitness and health issues.

There are cooking demonstrations, as well, and field trips to local grocers to check out certain types of food. Dining at local vegetarian restaurants and trying new cuisines is another way they encourage employees to improve their diet; so is What Color is Your Rainbow, a four-week nutrition program.  

“We can expand good eating choices and help employees explore things they haven’t eaten,” Vesprini said.

There is also a program called I’m Walking Here, where pedometers will be provided, and employees will be encouraged to get in their 10,000 steps a day. The wellness program will also arrange organized walks in various parks this year, as part of the effort to move more.

Such efforts keep employees feeling good, Austin said, at a time when external factors put a strain on the city’s ability to reward workers like they did in years past.

State-shared revenue has rolled back, and property tax revenue has taken a plunge, with another 8 percent drop projected this year. And that’s before the new legislation repealing personal property tax, Austin said, a state-level measure that will phase out the tax businesses pay on equipment, partially replacing it with the state’s “use tax,” a sales tax equivalent on out-of-state services. Cities will then have to shore up the difference.

Austin said the state is also pressuring cities to cut back on employee pension benefits, health care and more, in order to qualify for critical funding through the Economic Vitality Incentive Program, which partially replaced statutory revenue sharing.

“We’re trying to do the best we can with the resources we have, in that regard, but certainly it’s become much more difficult, given the roadblocks, the hurdles we have to address now,” Austin said. “But we do have a strong history and record of trying to support the employees. It’s in our best interests, and certainly our residents’ best interests, that we maintain a quality workforce with quality employees.”